When Wonder Woman first hit the big screen in 2017, the possibilities for the character felt endless. After 76 years without a blockbuster to call her own — she muscled into comics, bracelets flashing, in 1941 — she had made it, becoming a box-office sensation. And, yay! The movies love sexpot vixens vamping in fetish wear (meow) and nice girls simpering in the wings, so it was relief that this Wonder Woman was neither. She was sovereign, powerful and lightly charming, and even when the movie had teasing fun with her it took the character, her mighty sword and cultural significance seriously.
The first movie is set largely during World War I, which set a lofty bar for the scope and the import of future adventures. The sequel’s title, “Wonder Woman 1984,” suggests that some juicy Orwellian intrigues are in the offing. Will Wonder Woman, a.k.a. Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), hijack a Soviet cruise missile, toss jelly beans at Ronald Reagan? As it turns out, the year mostly proves an excuse to pile on side ponytails, fanny packs and nostalgic nods to the kind of Hollywood blowouts that feature cartoonish violence and hard-bodied macho types. What is Wonder Woman doing in these campy, recycled digs? Who knows? Clearly not the filmmakers.
Patty Jenkins is behind the camera again, but this time without the confidence. Certainly some of the problems can be pinned on the uninterestingly janky script, a mess of goofy jokes, storytelling clichés and dubious politics. (It was written by Jenkins, Geoff Johns and Dave Callaham.) There’s a mystical artifact; an evildoer seeking world domination (bonus: he’s a bad dad); and one of those comic-book wallflowers who morphs into a sexy supervillain — you know, the usual. It’s a whole lot of unoriginality, but the used parts aren’t what sink “Wonder Woman 1984.” Familiarity, after all, is one of the foundations (and pleasures) of cinematic genres and franchises.
What matters is how awkwardly these elements — the heroes and villains, the jokes and action sequences — are put together. For starters, as is the case with many contemporary pictures, this one starts better than it finishes. (It plays like an elevator pitch, all setup without the delivery.) It opens with a leisurely flashback to Diana’s princess childhood during some kind of Amazonian Olympics, with aerial gymnastics and tight, muscular thighs astride thundering horses. This gambol down memory lane may have been necessary for viewers who didn’t see the first movie. But in the context of the rest of this movie, it vibes like a one-hit band opening with its sole claim to fame.
Eventually, the movie gets down to its 1984 business, and the pace drifts into lethargy. The story packs in a lot of stuff and characters but without purpose or urgency. (It could have used more of the distinctive electric cello that helped juice the first movie’s action, giving it a signature hook.) Kristen Wiig has some fun as the wallflower, but Pedro Pascal is badly misused as the villain du jour. Wonder Woman’s great love, Steve (Chris Pine), inexplicably materializes too, kind of like Patrick Swayze in “Ghost,” though the details remain fuzzy. Pine gives the movie heart (and oomph), as well as emotional expressivity, which is necessary given Gadot’s narrow range.
In her debut super-outing, Gadot was the wobbly axis in a movie that ran smoothly sometimes despite her. She was convincing and also charming because the character was too, as well as fierce and unworldly. That Diana was also a hawk, which comes with the mythological territory, though the story gave her a justification in the form of an adversary, Ares the god of war. We must stop him, she told the ruler of the Amazons, a.k.a. Mom. It “is our foreordinance,” Diana insisted, embracing the interventionist faith that has long defined American cinema. But by the time she’s powering through the Middle East in the sequel, that ideological creed just looks like an assertion of power.
Although there’s no official war in “1984,” Jenkins et al. need to stir up trouble, an obligation that results in scenes that feel like busywork. The movie oscillates between hand-to-hand (and hand-to-paw) combat and large-scale choreographed mayhem with flying bodies, trucks and whatnot whirling in a shopping center and elsewhere. During one fight, Wonder Woman pauses to voice some anti-gun rhetoric, a disingenuous declaration given all the guns and ammo in the two movies. As before, in the best moments Jenkins brings the camera low so you can admire how Wonder Woman slides and sweeps across the ground, her long legs mowing down the opposition.
In the end, this movie never makes the case for why Wonder Woman is back in action beyond the obvious commercial imperatives. It’s a given that franchises are produced to make bank, etc., but the best chapters have life, personality, a reason for being and for fighting. They expand on their characters’ mythologies, using the past to explore the present. Three years ago, Wonder Woman emerged amid a reckoning on male abuse and power; the timing was coincidental, but it also made the character feel meaningful. In 2017, when Wonder Woman was done saving the world, her horizons seemed limitless. I didn’t expect that her next big adult battle would be at the mall.
Wonder Woman 1984
Rated PG-13 for comic-book violence. Running time: 2 hours 31 minutes. Watch on HBO Max.